The Seeds of Science

MANHATTAN, Kan. (KSNW) — Any farmer knows there are good years and there are bad years — but what is already a tough job becomes even tougher when things like weather or plant diseases leave yields low.

Researchers at Kansas State University are working on creating a wheat that is designed to combat those things.

Dr. Allan Fritz is passionate about the wheat industry in Kansas.

He is an agronomy professor at Kansas State, who has made wheat his entire career — from the different varieties to the diseases that threaten them.

His work may end with amber waves of grain, but it begins in the labs and greenhouses at K-State’s Wheat Genetics Resource Center.

Finding “the jewel”

The resource center houses a gene bank, where thousands of strains of wheat are stored, along with their wild relatives.

According to Fritz, wild wheat relatives are the undomesticated species that grow naturally in the wild.

Fritz plays matchmaker with the wheat relatives, trying to find the right combination.

He explained: “Maybe one has really good yield, really good quality, but maybe it’s lacking a key disease resistance. Maybe we have another parent that’s pretty good for quality, pretty good for yield, but also resistant to a disease. So we’d compliment those traits.”

Each combination is a little bit science and a little bit luck that it will turn into the next big thing for Kansas farmers.

“We kind of are garbage shifters,” Fritz said. “We shift a lot of garbage to find the one jewel that’s in there, that’s going to be really beneficial for our producers.”

Researchers name their wheat varieties, and watch them grow to see if they’ll turn into that “one jewel.”

Currently, K-State’s Everest is the leading wheat variety in the state. However, it just released Larry — another prospect for Kansas farmers.

“Larry, probably, is more broadly adapted, has good drought-tolerance, is not so strong on leaf rust but very strong on stripe rust, which is a major disease for us,” said Fritz,

From the lab to the field

The Wheat Resource Center was funded by farmers to advance wheat breeding. Farmers are always looking forward to what work comes out of the lab and out onto their field.

“Those new varieties and finding new things is very helpful and important, and it can benefit us,” said David Radenburg.

Radenburg farms in Barton, Ellsworth and Rush counties. For him, seed genetics is about the bottom line.

“We may or may not have to use another herbicide, we can be able to breed it into the plant,” he said. “So then you’re not using, necessarily, the chemicals.”

According to Radenburg, finding the right variety can help him spend less on cultivating his crop, and could potentially increase yields. This could increase supply and open more international trade doors, with countries wanting to buy more wheat from the state.

“It’s very good for us as producers to be able to have a place to go and get a good dollars back out of the wheat and money we’ve invested in those products,” Radenburg said.

Consumer benefits

While a strong agriculture economy helps pump more than $60 billion into Kansas every year, the science can also pay off for you — the consumer in your everyday life.

K-State is working to breed varieties that could fit into your preferred diet – from high protein to a higher nutritional value.

“Maybe anti-oxidant content, where it’d be cancer-fighting properties that would come along with that, as well as things like high iron, high zinc, kind of mineral nutrition,” explained Fritz.

Those breakthroughs don’t come easily or quickly. Fritz said the whole process takes about 11 years per variety.

However, he said patience does pay off for farmers and consumers.

Fritz added: “We’re really trying to find something that’s better than what’s already out there.”

Wheat breeding vs. genetic modification

Plant breeding, like what they’re doing at K-State, has been going on for thousands of years — since the domestication of crops. The thousands of genes in two very closely related plants are bred together to try to create a better plant.

Genetic engineering, to create products often called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, focuses on a handful of single genes — trying to put a specific property into the plant.

In this process, the genes can come from any organism and doesn’t have to come from something closely related to the original plant.

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